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The diner could be anywhere, set back from a plumb line road that ran east and west into a chalky nothingness; a square indifferent building in an inconsequential landscape that had no other reason to exists other than it was nowhere – and sometimes nowhere is where we need to be.
Inside, Seth places his palms face down on the Formica table, feeling its coolness against his hot skin, not wanting to look up and meet her eyes, though he knows she has slipped into the seat opposite and is staring right into him, the way she always does. Her misery is palpable. Yet his anger has not gone away; it ferments and swills in his stomach like rotten fruit. The monstrous unfairness of it all, the betrayal – he hadn’t seen it coming – and he can never forgive her.
“Hey, Nancy,” he says at last, raising his head a little, trying to keep his voice even. “You came.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she says bitterly, and then, relenting, “Don’t I always?”
And he holds still, acknowledging the recrimination, aware of his pulse juddering, his nerves attenuated. Their meetings were always awkward, spiky; too much emotion.
He looks beyond her, catching the blue-green pattern of her dress in his peripheral vision, the tattooed italics on the side of her hand which, he knows, reads: ‘Like gold to airy thinness beat’, a line from a John Donne poem: two souls forever joined, however far apart they may be. It was exactly how they had felt at the time. How ridiculously sentimental. Love, they had found out later, was a brutal thing.
And then Seth notices that a waitress is shifting a broom around the floor and watching them.
“You want somepin?” she stops sweeping.
“Coffee, please,” he says. “Just coffee; want some Nance?” but Nancy puts her hand over his and Seth recoils at her touch, as though it stings, and a great emptiness opens up inside him.
“Please, Seth, I miss the kids so much,” she says, and her voice is full of hunger. “You should have brought them?” A great sob rises in her throat though her eyes are dry. Seth understands this too well; hers is a heartache that goes beyond the catharsis of tears. And he sighs wretchedly. “You know I can’t, Nance. They’re just babies. We agreed.”
And she moves her head, an imperceptible nod, and rush of words comes to Seth’s lips; words he wants to say but knows he must not, or their torment will never end, yet one word clings: stay
Instead, Seth says what he must. “This is our last meeting, Nancy,” his voice quavers. “We can’t do this any more. It isn’t helping.” And this time he looks into her eyes and sees something he doesn’t expect: relief.
And, Seth squeezes her hand in his and she lets him, and there, as ever, is her wedding ring; they are still married and she has never let him forget that. But now she slips it from her finger and places it in his palm and Seth understands: she is ready, and suddenly there is nothing else to say.
And so they leave the diner, and the coffee grows cold, and the waitress follows them with her eyes, and they walk together, acutely aware of the other’s presence.
On the way to the parking lot two men pass them. They wear double-breasted pinstriped suits, shades and fedoras; improbable gangsters from a 1940s’ mafia movie. One turns to the other and says, “Hey, I hear Louie is back in town,” and walks on towards the diner, out of earshot.
“Did you hear that Nancy?” says Seth, without thinking, force of habit. “Louie is back in town.”
“Oh no,” exclaims Nancy, “You don’t mean Big Louie,” and there is a split second silence. Then, both erupt into laughter, loud and spontaneous, and stop, remembering with a stab how happy they had once been; how much they had laughed; sparring off each other’s lame jokes. And each, once again, is wrangling with impossible emotions; with unendurable loss, and the word is on Seth’s lips again, and this time it burns.
They reach the parking lot. In front of them, the highway stretches towards the horizon, a solitary black pencil line marking out the miles and miles between them. Not for the first time, Seth wants to deny everything, and Nancy is hanging back, waiting for the word to land in her hands so she can hold on to it. But then he remembers and brushes her cheek and turns. “Look after yourself Nancy,” is all he says, and he walks towards his car and doesn’t look back.
“You too, Seth,” her voice is small, and in his mind he can see her standing there in the dust, a stricken thing in a blue-green dress, a line of poetry running through her skin.
To the east, a void of white sky is seeping into lemon, then mauve as Seth’s glance travels westwards. He opens the door of his car and stops. He cannot do it. He cannot leave her. He will put his arms around her; this time he will make her stay; keep her here no matter what. And that is when he turns to call her back. But now the road stretches straight and true in each direction and there is no Nancy and there is no car. He is too late: she has gone.
Seth sits in the driver’s seat and grips the steering wheel tightly until it hurts, until the physical pain soothes him, just a little. Finally, he turns the ignition and looks at the seat beside him, and remembers why he’s come. And so he drives and keeps on driving, until he reaches the place, that somewhere place, where he has promised Nancy that, when the time is right, when he is strong enough, he will give up her ashes to the sea and finally, for the sake of them both, put her to rest.